Carter: Our obsession with our lawns

Purchasing a new $150 weed eater and re-organizing my tool shed were the highlights of my last weekend. I don’t know if that says more about me or my (lack of) weekend plans.

As I was rearranging inside the shed, trying to make clear lines of demarcation between the children’s bikes and outdoor toys and Daddy’s “toys,” following several hours of tree pruning, grass mowing and, of course, trimming and edging with my newest machine, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I ironically stacked bags of grass seed and fertilizer to grow more grass nearby the tools I’d just used to chop it all down.


What a strange obsession we have with our yards in America — and an expensive one. U.S. households spent almost $16 billion on lawn care and gardening services in 2015, according to data compiled by LawnStarter, a lawn care company. Retail sales of lawn and garden supplies totaled another $5.7 billion in 2014, and are projected to reach $6.6 billion by next year.

Every weekend from spring to fall, it seems, I spend a few hours walking my mower back-and-forth, neatly trimming the edges, then lugging around the leaf blower/vac to clean up the clippings. As fall comes, I’ll put down grass seed and maybe some fertilizer in hopes of making my lawn more lush when spring rolls around, even though that just means more mowing and trimming. And the cycle continues.

A neighbor at the corner of our court has an even greater obsession. I’ve seen him out there on random weeknights, still in his dress shirt and khakis after coming home from work, manicuring his lawn (once with a pair of scissors!) to keep it looking darn near perfect.

So why are we so obsessed? When we bought our first townhouse 11 years ago, I had a non-motorized push mower to handle the “postage stamp” sized yard. My goal then was just not to be “that guy” in the neighborhood who lets his grass get overgrown. It didn’t take long for me to instead start investing in motorized lawn tools and various products to green up my lawn.

The American lawn is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly for the middle class, taking off with the rise in suburbanization after World War II, according to Ted Steinberg, who literally wrote the book on our obsession with acres of carpet-like green grass yards.

In “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn,” Steinberg writes that when the Levitts, a family of developers, built what is widely regarded as the first mass-produced American suburb on what had been a swath of potato fields on Long Island, New York, each of the 17,000 or so homes had a lawn surrounding it. There were covenants in the deeds to the homes that every owner mow their lawn once a week. (Of note, the Levitts built a majority of the first homes in large planned communities of Largo, Bowie and Crofton in Maryland during the 1960s.)

Most early lawns in America could be found on the estates of the wealthy, because they had the financial resources to afford the upkeep. Thomas Jefferson, of course, is noted for being one of the first to replicate European lawn styling in America at Monticello. Most Americans at that time focused on using their yard to grow crops or raise animals.

In fact, most of the grasses that we see in our neighborhoods, in parks and even lining our streets aren’t what colonists found when they arrived. Pasture grasses were not native to the eastern seaboard, and animals brought from Europe would die in the winter from starvation or from eating poisonous plants out of desperation after they gobbled up native, annual grasses in the New England area, according to an article in Scientific American. Raising animals was crucial to survival, so settlers in the 17th century began importing grass and clover seeds from back home (with them came weeds like dandelions too).

Lawns are now the most grown “crop” in America.

It was in the 1870s that produce gardens that had traditionally been in the front yards of American homes moved to the backyard, and maintained grass, separating homes from streets in suburban communities, began to take rise, according to a history of the American lawn on the website of grass seed producer Pennington.

During the first official World’s Fair in the United States, in Philadephia in 1876, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had several displays on how to start new grass lawns. The rise of the sport of golf in America also contributed to our obsession with lawns. According to Virginia Scott Jenkins’ book “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” the idea of refining turf grasses took off after the first American golf course opened in New York in 1888 and golf course-like lawns became an American goal. The U.S. Golf Association contributed funding to USDA research into testing grasses.

The lawn obsession in America was put on hold during the first World War, when citizens turned their yards into Victory Gardens — vegetable gardens to increase food production during wartime. Even President Woodrow Wilson famously used sheep to maintain the White House lawn to allow grounds crews to join military service; the sheep’s wool was donated to the Red Cross.

The rise of the Weekend Weed Warrior like myself was at least partially because of the advent of the 40-hour work week, made possible by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, freeing up weekends to work on lawns, among other things. That was followed by the mass production of rotary power mowers in the late ’40s, which made larger lawns easier to maintain. From 1946 to 1959, sales of lawn mowers grew from 139,000 to 4.2 million, according to Steinberg’s book.

There are now more than 40 million acres of turf in the United States constituting our lawns. They certainly have their benefits beyond looking nice. Lawns absorb carbon dioxide to clean the air and reduce runoff. And yes, an aesthetically pleasing lawn can contribute significantly to a home’s value.


The obsession, however, comes from what our lawn says about us. Lawns are a manifestation of our socio-economic status; not just of ourselves, but our neighborhoods. No one wants their neighbor to be “that guy” who let’s his grass grow knee-high before he cuts it — or worse, as I once feared, being “that guy” yourself. And too many unkempt lawns in a neighborhood may indicate the community as a whole doesn’t have the time or money to prioritize something as trivial as their front yard, leading to lower property values.

Lawns are, without question, really just a vanity project. But I can’t help myself, as I finish writing this and hear my neighbor firing up his lawn equipment to beat the rain, I think, “Well, guess it’s time to mow the grass.” At least I get to use my new toy again.